In 2007, Assassin’s Creed fused elements of stealth and platforming gameplay into something new. An imperfect and at times clunky game, it nonetheless sparked wide interest thanks to its unique approach to play and strikingly detailed historical setting. With a few further refinements, it became a landmark franchise.
Fifteen years later, as revealed in today’s “Ubisoft Forward” event, Ubisoft is celebrating the anniversary of its release with, well… not much.
The decision to talk big about a “15th Anniversary” (there’s even a special logo!) seems odd in light of how thin the amount of actual product on display wa,s and how little of it is hitting timely. The only new Assassin’s Creed content promised for this year was a free expansion for AC: Valhalla entitled “The Last Chapter”, following Eivor as she (Ubisoft seems to be emphasizing this canonicity) grapples with Odin’s memories and the changing nature of religion in northern Europe at this time. Of course, a free expansion is welcome, but it seems like weak tea for an anniversary celebration.
Ubisoft dedicated a lot of the Assassin’s Creed showcase to quick-hit hype “trailers” that revealed virtually nothing about the games in question, not even titles, although some of the codenames were potentially interesting.
Codename: Jade had the most to show, though this amounted only to a cutscene of an eagle surveying a city in ancient China. The story is set about halfway through Qin Shi Huang’s rule as China’s first Emperor, but no other information about the story was available other than that some gameplay will take place on the (then-incomplete) Great Wall. The player will be able to design their own character (no word on if you can make him look like Matt Damon) which usually does not portend a strong narrative design. Jade is a mobile title and big promises were aired about making Assassin’s Creed gameplay work with touch controls, but nothing was demonstrated.
Two other codename games were mentioned briefly.
Codename: Hexe showed nothing but a Blair Witch-esque twig-crafted Assassin’s symbol, but the fact that Ubisoft Montreal is at work on it under the direction of Clint Hocking may be enough to excite certain corners of the gaming world.
Codename: Red seems like a belated attempt by Ubisoft to finally situate an Assassin’s Creed game in Japan after Ghost of Tsushima – flawed, but easily the best Assassin’s Creed game of the last five years – ate their lunch. This game, under the direction of Jonathan Dumont, will conform to the bloated open-world RPG structure that has defined the series for the last several games.
However, that’s not the only direction the franchise is taking. The next game set to be released, Assassin’s Creed Mirage, is specifically envisioned as a return to the series’ roots.
In a press briefing, representatives from Ubisoft Bordeaux, which is leading development, spoke of their focus on the elements that made the series distinctive when it was first released: dense urban environments, stealth-focused gameplay, parkour, and actual assassinations. They promised that this had also been updated with some more modern trappings and upgrades, allowing for more nimble parkour, overhead scouting (with a bird, natch) and mark-and-kill rapid assassination abilities.
The game also hearkens back to the original Assassin’s Creed with its setting in the Fertile Crescent, this time visiting Baghdad at the moment when the Abassid Caliphate first started to fracture.
Although there have been rumblings about the franchise abandoning the animus and its present-day storyline, the choice of protagonist doesn’t seem to fit that framing. Mirage will return us to the story of Basim ibn Ishaq, a key character from Valhalla, as he rises from simple street thief to Master Assassin and discovers a hidden truth about himself. The game is conceived as a linear action/adventure with a tight narrative focus, which is also in my view a welcome change from the aimless and bloated stuff that has been the core of the franchise recently.
The press briefing didn’t make it clear, but what I hope will happen here is that the series grows a little more diverse, with both the tight, urban action adventures I prefer and the larger open-world titles that seem to grab the big bucks. There is, clearly, a push to make Assassin’s Creed more of a media empire, despite the disastrous feature film. Books and podcasts are forthcoming, and although they had nothing to show, Ubisoft can’t seem to stop themselves from talking up their Netflix series, even though it’s only in pre-production and all the streaming services are retreating from new content.
However, none of this is more interesting to me than the promise of a return to what made the series unique: urban stealth, free movement, and a sense of simple, single-minded lethality. The early Assassin’s Creed games stick in my brain because of the exhilaration of scampering through a historical playground where every enemy NPC was one second of lapsed focus away from dying on the end of a hidden blade. The return to that with Mirage is welcome indeed; hopefully it’s more than just an illusion.
Disclosure: Gamecritics.com was invited to a private press briefing in advance of the Ubisoft Forward event. This article was written on the basis of information conveyed in that briefing. We accepted an embargo as a condition of access.